History: Report shows Nazi-era medical atrocities

A comprehensive report on the medical atrocities under National Socialism clearly shows that the crimes were not just carried out by individuals.

History: Report shows Nazi-era medical atrocities

A comprehensive report on the medical atrocities under National Socialism clearly shows that the crimes were not just carried out by individuals. "It is often surprising how limited knowledge of the Nazi medical crimes is in the medical community today, apart perhaps from a vague notion of Josef Mengele's experiments at Auschwitz," said lead author Herwig Czech of the Medical University of Vienna.

For this reason, three years ago he and his colleagues suggested to the editor-in-chief of the specialist journal "The Lancet" the establishment of a commission that would expand this knowledge and draw conclusions for the future.

The report now presented by 20 scientists and doctors is based on 878 sources and is the most comprehensive report to date on these atrocities, writes "The Lancet". He chronicles the development of medical research during the Nazi era and portrays individual perpetrators as well as individual victims and imprisoned doctors who, for example, treated their fellow inmates under the most difficult conditions, for example in concentration camps.

One of the perpetrators named is Elisabeth Hecker, a pediatrician and adolescent psychiatrist who was respected in the Federal Republic after the Second World War. In 1979, she received the Federal Cross of Merit, First Class, for her services to establishing youth psychiatry in Germany.

It was only in 1995, nine years after her death, that her role in Silesia during the Nazi era, when she ran a youth psychiatric hospital, became known. "As part of the so-called child euthanasia program, she ordered the children to be transferred to the local killing unit and attempted to enforce the killing permit even when the parents insisted on the child's release from the clinic," the report says.

Drawings from the Nazi era are still used today

Another concern of the commission is to sensitize medical professionals to where the medical knowledge imparted comes from. The anatomy atlas by the Austrian anatomist Eduard Pernkopf is still used today because of its attention to detail.

The convinced National Socialist also used images of people who had been executed during the Nazi era. "Medical students, researchers and practicing health professionals should know where - and from whom - the foundations of medical knowledge come; they owe it to the victims of Nazism," says Shmuel Pinchas Reis of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a co-chair of the commission .

The report lists numerous data showing that German health experts helped draft compulsory sterilization laws and sterilized at least 310,000, but possibly more than 350,000 people who were classified as genetically inferior.

Many people who were sterilized then had severe physical and psychological problems. The procedure was often fatal. During the Second World War, at least 230,000 people who suffered from various mental, cognitive and other disabilities and were considered unworthy of life were murdered in so-called euthanasia programs in Germany and the conquered territories. Tens of thousands of people were subjected to forced medical research.

Report is just a first step

The Lancet's editor-in-chief, Richard Horton, convened the Lancet Commission on Medicine, Nazism and the Holocaust in January 2021. It is intended not only to collect historical evidence, but also to demonstrate the impact of actions today and lessons for the future.

"The Nazi medical atrocities are among the most extreme and well-documented examples of medical involvement in human rights abuses in history," said Sabine Hildebrandt of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, another co-chair of the commission. "We must study the history of humanity's worst to recognize and counteract similar patterns in the present, with the aim of promoting the best."

The authors see their report as a first step; they are planning extensive online documentation. They also offer a new educational paradigm they call "history-informed professional identity formation" and lay out a plan for adopting it into medical education.